“…the medium of writing—whose presence in a photo archive was, according to Allan Sekula, a sign of a lack of trust in photography’s mimetic powers—cannot necessarily be trusted any more than the photographs themselves.” Spieker, Sven, “1970–2000, Archive, Database, Photography,” The Big Archive: art from bureaucracy, Boston: MIT Press (2008), 140
To begin the process of applying language to the thirty disparate images I have to work with, I figured it was necessary to learn more about the way in which institutional archives describe photographs. This first led me to a few texts outlining complicated classification rules and taxonomies that should be maintained within archives, such as this manual on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS, for short). Determining rather quickly that it was not my responsibility to understand the complexities of proper archival description, I looked to existing archival descriptions for answers.
Combing through the Library of Congress, the Library and Archives of Canada, the Archives of Ontario and the City of Toronto Archives, I began to see trends in the way archival photographs were described. In a general sense the descriptions are didactic, providing a barebones description of what is the primary subject within the image (of course, in some cases the subject is subjective, and that is where things can get interesting). Location and date are the next details provided, locating the image both temporally and geographically. If there is no location information available, the description will sometimes include [location unknown] or simply be ignored. Dates are commonly included, and when uncertain they seem to be estimated: [1894?] or [1940–45]. In some cases, descriptions are very complex as seen in this example from the Library of Congress below.
|Matador [graphic material]. 1973|
An important point to make here is that the descriptions I am referring to are the top-level image description, sometimes listed as "titles." Opening the record (either online or in the institution) will often reveal further levels of information, including details about the fonds, the author, alternate descriptions and other relevant info. However, I am focusing on the top-level description since it is the first text encountered in the archive and the text that is used to determine whether or not to look at the record. In other words, when searching an archive it is this language that holds the power over the photograph's visibility or its use. This is especially true in many cases where the photograph is only visible after requesting to view it at the institution, a decision that is based solely off of the archival description. Here it is possible to start to understand the power of language in relation to the photographic archive.